“IF YOU THINK about it,” Maria Muldaur remarked during a recent showcase for her new blues album, Fanning the Flames, “a tarantella is really just a shuffle beat.”
The offhand comment was typical of the way this Italian-American New Yorker instinctively locates root similarities among diverse musical forms. Muldaur has been a student and performer of blues, ragtime, country, jazz and vintage Tin Pan Alley pop since her recording debut with the Even Dozen Jug Band in 1964. After 11 solo albums and numerous collaborations with various rock, jazz and folk legends, Muldaur’s current foray into poignant, funky rhythm and blues is just a natural evolution of work the singer began when she formed her first vocal group out of high school. Muldaur’s interpretive range is impressive. On the Johnny Adams’ duet “Trust in My Love” she sings with the countrified swing of a Ray Charles or a vintage Al Green. On the bouncy gospel number “Somebody Was Watching Over Me,” she, Bonnie Raitt, Mavis Staples, Ann Peebles and an all-star chorus belt out jubilee harmonies like the Dixie Hummingbirds. The title track, with its slinky Rhodes synth lines, couch the singer in the same suggestive atmosphere Quincy Jones devised for singers on his ’70s jazz funk opus “Body Heat.” Indeed, it’s the ease with which Muldaur can shift from a raw Texas honky-tonk vibe to sly Chi-town sophistication that makes this collection of tunes so interesting. Now that pop radio has turned Bonnie Raitt into a Grammy winner and made Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason” a hit, surely it will find something on Fanning the Flames to fall in love with. Like the modern blues-harp master Carey Bell, Muldaur sings the blues for topical as well as romantic reasons. “Can’t Pin Yo’ Spin On Me” and “Brotherly Love” are full of pointed political commentary, while “Well, Well, Well” weds Muldaur’s Appalachian twang to Mavis Staples’ Delta moan as a subtle allusion to the kind of suffering that unites people across boundaries of race, region and class.
“There are issues of grave concern weighing heavily on my heart — unfinished business of the Twentieth Century’s social ills,” said Muldaur about the material she’s currently performing in small venues around the country. “I turned to my favorite songwriters for songs that would express this [because] to do yet another album of sexy, sultry love songs at this point in time would be like fiddling while Rome burns.”
Published in: Newsday, April, 1996